General Assembly business changes: Consent calendar and committee reports

Heads up! Folks following the 2014 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) might want to know of some changes in the rules that will affect how the assembly conducts its business later this week.

Consent calendar: At the first plenary following the close of committee business – the plenary that begins at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, June 18 – the assembly will consider a consent calendar that combines business from all of the assembly’s 15 committees. The basic rule is this: if an item of business is approved by at least a 75 percent vote from the committee, it can go on the consent calendar.

Jim Collie, of the General Assembly Tracking Office
Jim Collie, of the General Assembly Tracking Office

That new twist is the result of changes that the 2012 General Assembly made to the Standing Rules, at the request of the Committee to Review Biennial Assemblies, which has been given responsibility for suggesting improvements in how the General Assembly does its work. The intent of putting more items on the consent calendar is to “let the body focus on the most critical matters it needs to discuss together,” said Jim Collie, a veteran tracker in the General Assembly’s Tracking Office. “We’ve tried to clear the busyness aside and leave time for the things that really need to happen.”

In practical terms, there will be a two-part process for determining what goes onto and what stays on the consent calendar.

  • Step one: Before the Wednesday plenary, the committee leadership will remove from the consent agenda some items which technically could be there, but which the leadership discerns “we need to have conversation about” and should be part of the committee’s regular report, Collie said. Examples, he said, would be:
    • Any item with a minority report;
    • Items on which the action on that item could be answered by the action on another related item; and
    • Items on which the committee had substantial debate or disagreement before taking a vote that passed the 75 percent threshold.

We’ve tried to build in some safeguards,” Collie said, so items that might technically meet the 75 percent threshold but probably merit individual attention would still get it.

  • Step two: Commissioners will have an opportunity to request that additional items be removed from the consent agenda for the assembly to discuss them individually. Tom Hay, director of operations for the Office of the General Assembly, said in May during training for the committee leadership that a plea will be made for commissioners to use discretion in pulling items from the consent agenda – don’t do it casually, he said, because that defeats the purpose of trying to save more time for the assembly to discuss its most important business.

No committee reports. In the past, once committees finished their work, each would prepare a report and copies would be available for distribution – mostly electronically in recent years, although some paper reports were still available. This year: no committee reports. That doesn’t just mean no paper reports – it means no written committee reports at all.

All records of the committee’s actions will be available on PC-Biz– the online system the PC(USA) uses to track items of business up before the assembly. That’s where all actions of the committee’s work will be recorded – those lists essentially function as the committee reports. “This is the next step to using technology to cut down on paper,” Collie said.

When a committee has finished its work, its leadership team and production staff from the Office of the General Assembly will work together to certify that what’s reflected on PC-Biz is accurate and complete, Collie said. Viewers will be able to see on PC-Biz the status of each item – with a green checkmark next to the item once final action has been taken (such as a vote on the consent calendar).

When they begin their presentations to the assembly, committee leaders will be encouraged to sketch out verbally for the commissioners what’s to come – to provide sort of a “thematic roadmap,” Collie said. But the order on which items appear on the list of the committee’s business on PC-Biz is not necessarily the order in which the assembly will vote on those matters – which means commissioners or observers who take a break in the midst of a committee’s action and leave the room could miss something important if they’re not paying attention.

That’s shorthand for: plan your breaks strategically.